Confronting the Winter Blues

Markie Pasternak
Markie Pasternak

As a junior in college, I was fortunate enough to study abroad in Cape Town, South Africa over winter break. Getting out of the northern hemisphere provided me the chance to experience a second summer during January. Spending weeks seeing the sun reflecting off the white-sandy beaches of the Western Cape and feeding the beautiful foliage of Table Mountain was a harsh contrast to the cold, gray winter that greeted me upon my return to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the spring semester. And although I had felt down in winter before, I had never experienced anything like this.

The “winter blues” is a common phenomenon in January and February, and if you’ve lived up north as I have, sometimes this lull in mood can last even into March. If you are experiencing what feels like unexplained or random sadness during this time, know you are not alone. The lack of sunlight and cold weather does a number on mental health. This can be particularly challenging for college students, as you are expected to perform both academically and socially during this time despite any mental struggles. 

Some signs you may be experiencing the “winter blues” include feeling sad, bored, or down while still having the ability to feel other emotions. You may even shed a few tears, and it’s totally normal. However, if you notice yourself feeling down for over two weeks you may be experiencing depression. More specifically, if over the years you have noticed a feeling of depression setting in during the late fall or early winter and resolving in spring, you may be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy consistently 
  • Oversleeping
  • Drastic changes in typical eating patterns 
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless, or guilty consistently 
  • Having thoughts of not wanting to live

If you think you may be experiencing SAD, consider seeking help by going to your campus counseling center or talking to your primary care provider. In the meantime, whether you are experiencing SAD or a rough case of the winter blues, self-care tips can also provide a little ray of sunshine to your mental health this month:

  • Keep as warm and cozy as you can: Cuddle up after class or while studying with a fluffy blanket, your favorite fuzzy socks, and maybe even a cup of hot chocolate or tea. Keep yourself warm and relaxed.
  • Get some real rays of sunshine: Scheduling time to go outdoors and sit by a window when you can to receive exposure to natural sunlight can help boost your mood. 
  • Try a new form of exercise: When things seem dull, shake things up and keep your body moving. Let January 2022 go down in history as the month you tried yoga for the first time or took an ice skating class! 
  • Eat your fruits and veggies: Nutrition can make a big difference for not only your physical but also your mental health. Fruits and vegetables have nutrients that can help give you more energy. Food is fuel! 
  • Create things to look forward to during these months: The holidays provide a lot of things on the calendar to look forward to, whether it be a family dinner or a zoom party with friends. Keep the momentum going in January and February too, through planning activities, connecting with loved ones, and prioritizing self-care.

This can be a tough time of year. Know that your feelings are valid and you’re not alone in what you may be experiencing. Hang in there – spring is coming.